The Hunt for Wat Tyler

In the fevered summer of 1848 – just after the great petition for manhood suffrage had been burnt in the ovens of the House of Commons – it wasn’t just in the capitals of Europe that men’s minds turned to rebellion.   A revolutionary spirit certainly stalked the West Riding.  In a blacksmith’s shop just off the Manchester Road in the Chartist stronghold of Bradford a burly, bearded man was hard at work.  The sweat poured from his brow as he hammered.  This man was thirty-five year old Isaac Jefferson.  Isaac wasn’t making spades.  Isaac was making pikes.   His neighbours called him Wat Tyler.

And so it was that one Sunday morning about fifty wool combers assembled on the moors outside Bradford.  Wat was at their head.  David Lightfowler, wearing a green shirt and a green cap, was giving the orders.”To the left”, he barked. “March”.  “Stop, lads.”  This was a risky enterprise.  There was a good chance that one of those fifty men wasn’t what he seemed.  Wasn’t a good Chartist at all; was in fact an informer for the magistrates.

These men were, of course, betrayed.  Now these men knew that, even with their pikes, the odds were very much against them if they came up against trained soldiers with rifles.   They were angry at their poverty, at the injustice of their situation, at the intransigence of the mill owners, the magistrates, the ministers far away in London.  They marched like soldiers, a few armed with pikes, others with bludgeons; but they were caught up in the moment, they were venting their frustration … they didn’t expect to be storming the court house in Bradford anytime soon.

The magistrates were alarmed.  Over their port that talked about how what had happened in Paris might well happen in Bradford. These men they agreed in no time at all had to be dealt with.  That Wat Tyler and his dangerous comrade Lightfowler must be apprehended.  And so a few days later 100 special constables were sent into Manchester Road to bring out the two wanted men.  Wat and Dave expected this and had made themselves scarce.  They were nowhere to be found.  The specials now got into a lot of trouble.  The working people of the Manchester Road fought back.  Women hurled abuse at them. Stones were thrown. Pokers were wielded.  Hemmed in by these furious people, it must have been a very alarming experience for the shopkeepers who had enlisted as volunteer police constables.

Where Wat and Dave were, the authorities did not know.  Word reached them about a month later that Wat had returned home.  This time they decided to tiptoe in.  A couple of police constables at Wat’s front door, another at the back and he was quickly apprehended. Now came an unforeseen difficulty.  Wat’s wrists were too thick to accomodate the handcuffs.  Still they marched him down the Manchester Road to the lock-up.  This was not a sight that his neighbours would accept.  The constables were surrounded by a huge crowd.  One woman called Mary Patchett kicked out at them, knocked their hats off and encouraged others to do the same.  Stones were thrown.  In the melee Wat’s wife Ann and his daughter Hannah managed to free him.  Wat Tyler did a runner.

For the next few months the magistrates hunted for Wat.  Every night the constables were out; but this working class community closed round him.  Wat was moved from place to place.  Wherever the constables went, he had already left.  It was not until September that the finally got their hands on him.  And it was in the middle of the night.  They found Wat fast asleep in a pub in a Pennine village on the outskirts of Bradford.  He was not armed and did not resist arrest.  He’d had enough of being on the run.

Isaac Jefferson got four months in the nick for drilling on the moor.  Mind you,he had already spent three months in York Castle before his trial.  He lived until 1874 and to the end of his days he remained proud of his involvement in the great Chartist Movement back in ’48.

Isaac Jefferson will appear in a forthcoming volume of the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

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